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December 31, 2006
Outback Bowl: Penn State vs. Tennessee
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The menu for the Outback Bowl has a little bit of everything for the college football fan.
First off, and not lost on bowl officials in Tampa, is the fact Tennessee and Penn State have legions of loyal fans. Once the matchup was set tickets sold out in four days, giving the Outback its sixth sellout in the past seven years.
The coaching matchup is a tasty appetizer. Penn State's Joe Paterno and Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer rank in the top 10 among active coaches in winning percentage. They also have winning records in bowl games and lead programs that have storied bowl histories. As a matter of fact, each team enters this game with 24 bowl victories, tied for third all time.
The main course is a game featuring outstanding players for both teams - on both sides of the ball. The Vols placed offensive tackle Arron Sears and wide receiver Robert Meachem on the Associated Press All-America team. The Nittany Lions were honored with five AP All-America selections: linebackers Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor, defensive tackle Jay Alford, offensive tackle Levi Brown and punter Jeremy Kapinos.
It all adds up to a game that should be a full plate of action.
"I think they are outstanding," Fulmer said of the Nittany Lions. "They are No. 5 in the country in scoring defense, and ... you don't do that by accident. They've only given up 26 points in the last four ballgames against good opponents. They're good, and their linebackers are as good as anybody we've played in the conference.
"As I told our football team – not to take anything away from Kentucky and Vanderbilt – we're getting back into the real deal when we play these guys."
"Our offensive front versus their defensive front and linebackers will be a challenge," Fulmer said. "We haven't been the kind of running football team during the course of the year that I would like to have been, or that Coach (David) Cutcliffe would like for us to be. That is a concern we still are working to address."
On the bright side for the Vols offense has been the play of quarterback Erik Ainge. In and out of the starting lineup as a sophomore, Ainge emerged this season with the return of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. The 6-foot-6 Ainge passed for 2,722 yards and 19 touchdowns, much of it to Meachem.
Meachem, a former Rivals.com five-star prospect out of Oklahoma, had struggled through some nagging injuries during his first two seasons and had done little for the Vols. But this has been his breakout season. He has a school record 1,265 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, pushing Ainge to new heights and taking pressure off the Vols running game.
Paterno has seen enough of Ainge and Meachem - both juniors - to know his defense will be tested.
"I think speed, obviously, is a problem for us," Paterno said. "They have, not only good speed, but wideout – No. 3, Meachem, is an outstanding football player. They have an excellent quarterback who, I think, has thrown for over 200 yards the last eight or nine games. It is a good football team. They have only lost to three of the best teams in the country – LSU by a couple of points, Florida by a couple of points and to Arkansas."
Penn State's losses didn't exactly come against chopped liver. The four teams that beat the Nittany Lions – Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Notre Dame – are 44-4.